I raised the issue of institutional change in the Church in a recent post. The major problem with respect to change is the tensions it raises at the level of Church teaching - is this an issue where change can be envisioned or is this a part of the sacred deposit of faith, a revealed truth, a doctrine of the Church in which no change can be considered? Even when it is not a doctrine of the Church, such as in the case of the teaching on limbo, any sort of proposed change in the theological teaching of the Church raises tensions. Does this indicate that the Church has been wrong on a certain theological question? Does that mean that every theological truth and doctrine is up in the air? Some people desire change with respect to much Church teaching and others say no change at any level is possible. Related to this is the fact that change occurs at a human level, not just at a theological level, which I feel deeply since my proclivities run to the traditional and the stable and so proposals for change concern me. Yet, change, a deepening of the understanding of revelation and its interpretation within the Church, has been with the Church from the beginning.
The first reading for the Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Easter deals with the Jerusalem Council and the question of whether Christians have to follow the Mosaic Law in order to gain salvation. The traditionalist position was clear and seems to have scripture and tradition on its side:
"Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." (15:1)
"Some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, "It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses."(15:5)
I suspect that one of the passages on the minds of the Christians who wanted to maintain the Mosaic Law was this passage from Genesis: "God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (17:1-4)
One must recognize the weight of the tradition of practice amongst the Jews, but we cannot forget that scripture seems to speak unequivocally on behalf of circumcision. The individuals from Judea, the believers who were Pharisees, have a powerful argument. Many of my students, as we read Acts 15, begin to understand the momentous shift that was taking place through the teaching of Jesus and the understanding of the Church at the Jerusalem Council. But this was a movement to interpreting and understanding Jesus’ teaching and the scripture which had not been apparent to the early Church as a whole. The Pharisaic Christians often garner a high degree of sympathy in my classroom as my students grasp the struggle the Church had to go through to implement this change. There were powerful strands of the teaching by Jesus and the scriptures in support of the Mosaic Law, but there were powerful impulses which spoke of the salvation for the whole world in the scriptures, in Jesus’ teaching and in the experiences and evangelization of Peter, Paul and other apostles. This is why the Church had to meet to discuss the issue and to determine the way of the Spirit. We will consider the remainder of Acts 15, and the Church’s decision, in the next post, but it is worth for today to reflect with empathy on the position of those who wanted to maintain the Mosaic Law as it always had been. Change is difficult, then and today.
John W. Martens